Scavenging Anthills to Survive: A Dispatch from the Sahel Hunger Crisis

07/02/2012 03:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

I recently returned from the Sahel region of Africa, where a major humanitarian crisis is now unfolding, affecting an estimated 18.7 million people. In the Tahoua region of Niger, where Concern is responding, I saw children who, completely listless from the effects of malnutrition, could not hold down therapeutic milk in overcrowded feeding centers.

The United Nations now estimates that upwards of one million children are at extreme risk of severe acute malnutrition across this semi-arid belt of land along the Sahara desert. Even in 'non-crisis' years, 645,000 children die in the Sahel -- 35 percent of which are linked to malnutrition. This grim reality will never change unless we address the root causes of cyclical hunger.

Last year, sporadic rainfall followed by plagues of birds, locusts, and other pests wiped out crops for many smallholder farmers. A range of other factors, including environmental degradation, regional insecurity -- aggravated by recent displacements from the conflict in Mali -- and chronic poverty have exacerbated the problem. Between October 2011 and April 2012, prices of local millet and sorghum, staples in Niger, rose by approximately 68 percent. Even when food is available, rocketing prices make them unaffordable and out-of-reach for the poor.

I visited one village where people had been waiting all morning to show us what they were currently surviving on. They brought what they call "famine foods," which are only eaten when nothing else is available. They had wild desert plants, very hard and bean-like vegetables, and most shocking of all, grain that they had taken from giant anthills.

Recent United Nations figures reveal that agencies and governments in the region require $925 million to meet immediate humanitarian needs in the Sahel. At the end of May, less than half of that had been provided. Particularly vulnerable countries such as Niger now face an acute funding shortfall. A further delay in response will lead only to a deterioration of the crisis.

In the short-term, there is an urgent need to meet immediate funding shortfalls. National governments in the region, donors, and humanitarian agencies must rapidly implement measures that enable the poorest to buy food. Interventions such as monthly cash allowances, cash-for-work initiatives, and livelihoods opportunities can mitigate the short-term effects of the disaster. Because this prevention work will not keep every child from becoming malnourished, we must also invest in the local health systems so that more people have access to treatment when and if they need it.

But a Band-Aid approach will never break the cycle of hunger. In the longer-term, government and donors must prioritize crisis prevention, rather than emergency response. Strong, preventative action that builds the resilience of vulnerable communities to crop losses and rising food prices and makes smart investments in health care and infrastructure development are essential in finally closing the 'hunger gap' that so many people in the Sahel face each and every year.

We must also respond more quickly to warning signs as they first emerge. Unlike sudden onset emergencies like earthquakes, we do have systems in place that warn us when a food crisis is likely to emerge. We will never save as many lives if we continue to react only once an emergency is fully underway, nor will we prevent communities from falling deeper and deeper into poverty each time crops fail and food prices skyrocket.

And it's not only the right thing to do -- it's also far less costly. Evidence shows that it would have cost $1 per day per child to prevent malnutrition if international donors had launched an early response to the 2005 Niger food crisis. Instead, it cost $80 per day per child to provide emergency medical treatment for severe malnutrition.

When I was in Niger, I saw children so close to death because of a lack of food, their worried parents cradling them, uncertain if they will live or die. The longer the delay in seeking treatment, the harder it is to save them. In one nutrition treatment center, I met a child who was so dehydrated that her veins had collapsed, making it nearly impossible to insert an intravenous cannula to give her lifesaving fluids. The health worker first tried her arm, her hand, and then finally her head, but was unable to get the needle into a vein. With the help of a colleague, they were finally able to get the needle in so that the child could start the long, slow road to recovery.

Concern has been working in Niger since 2002 and has responded to food crises in 2005, 2008, and 2010. Last year, when the first early warning signs emerged that a food crisis would likely be on the horizon in 2012, we launched programs that gave the poorest and most vulnerable quick access to cash so that they would continue to be able to access food without making the hard sacrifices that so many have to face, like pulling their children out of school or selling the few assets that they have just so they can eat.

The impact of these interventions is immediate and, in the midst of a crisis, is proof that we can save lives and protect the most vulnerable if we respond early and coordinated/strong. I met a woman who had five children and whose husband had left to Nigeria to find work, but had not heard from him since. She started to receive monthly cash allowances from Concern through her mobile phone, a safety net that helped her provide food for her children and prevent them from becoming malnourished.

This year, Concern will plan to reach 150,000 people like her with interventions that not only respond to the urgent needs, including the treatment of malnutrition, but also build long-term resilience and tackle the root causes of poverty and hunger. I met men and women who were setting up rain harvesting systems as part of Concern's cash-for-work schemes. These people were not only receiving an income to get them through the lean season -- they were also learning valuable techniques that were already increasing their crop yields by at least 50 percent.

We have an opportunity now in the Sahel to change how we approach hunger and food security, but it cannot only be international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Concern which work to make this happen. National governments, donor governments as well as the news media and the general public must also change their culture of only opening their eyes once photographs of emaciated children are splashed across the front-page. We know what we need to do and have the power to make those images disappear -- but there is no time to waste.

Scavenging Anthills to Survive: A Dispatch from the Sahel Hunger Crisis